Anyone who has traveled through Ben Gurion airport in Israel knows that it is a unique experience. For most Israeli Jews, the experience is comforting, a quick and accommodating entry into a nation created and developed for the Jewish people. For Palestinian-Americans and many activists working in occupied Palestine it is quite a different experience. Most of these travelers are held for hours and questioned repeatedly; some of who are stripped naked and in some cases (especially in the last two years) denied entry.
As I write from Ramallah, I recall my and my brother’s experience in Ben Gurion just one week ago. After a sleepless 15 hour trip from New York, we arrived at the airport and went directly to the check-in booth. After waiting in a short line, a friendly woman asked for our passports, yet immediately turned sour once she viewed them. We were asked to step aside and after about 15 minutes a woman from airport security told us to follow her into one of the detainment rooms. Given the countless stories of harassment I had heard and read about before my trip, I wasn’t so foolish to think that my journey through Ben Gurion would be a walk in the park. I had initially anticipated a four hour wait, interrogation, and a thorough pat down by Israel’s finest.
When we arrived at the first detainment room, several young female security agents asked us where we were going, about our ethnic background and family history, whether we had family in Israel or the occupied territories (and if we would be staying with them), and if “there was anything they should know.” We were then taken to another detainment room, where a few other detainees were being held. Over the next three hours, several female security officers came into the detainment room we were being held in to question us, while at other times we were called into other detainment rooms for questioning. One African detainee, an elderly black woman, was not allowed into the country with her husband despite a seemingly innocent decision to visit her family.
After about four hours, pure exhaustion set in. At this time, we were taken to a large room with metal detectors, an x-ray machine and a coffee machine that looked like it wasn’t in use. Still, in a token attempt at friendliness, the security agent offered us a cup of coffee. But the offer was rescinded once he noted the machine was out of service.
About every ten minutes another member of airport security entered the room. After about 30 minutes we were taken into a back room, patted down, and scanned with a hand held metal detector. After being held for an hour, Sami, who claimed to be a higher up in the IDF and airport security, entered the room. He had apparently been called in by regular airport security because of certain “red flags” we had raised.
Sami didn’t look particularly happy to see us. He started to go through our bags, which had been checked by every member of airport security that previously entered the room. He had a determined look on his face as he sifted through my brother’s book on corporate law and became more agitated when he didn’t find the holy grail of information.
After about 15 minutes Sami looked up at us and told us that “something was missing;” we were “leaving out part of the story,” and he was going to find out just exactly what that “part” was. He was looking for what he called the “truth.” So I repeated what we had told the previous soldiers: we were staying our first two nights in East Jerusalem, we would be traveling to the holy sites (to see where baby Jesus was born), Haifa and Yaffa (the cities our grandparents were dispossessed from in 1948), Nazareth and Bethlehem. We told the truth, but kindly omitted Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Jenin, Dheisheh, and any other intended stops in the occupied territories that didn’t involve conventional tourism. In all honesty, we had only planned out our first two days in East Jerusalem, which made Sami increasingly annoyed.
Sami put it bluntly, as of the moment we were called in we were considered “terrorists” or people intending to “engage in terrorists activities” because we “lied” to airport security about the intention of our travels. Sami defined terrorism and terrorist activities as meeting up with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), working in “terrorist” branches of the Alternative Information Center (AIC), and non-violently protesting against the Apartheid Wall in the village of Bil’in. He was trying to a strike fear in us that went well passed being denied entry. It had become a matter of whether he was going to tell the US government if we were terrorists or not. He claimed that if he told the US government we were terrorists, it would not only affect us the rest of our lives (i.e. anytime we tried to get a job, bought a plane ticket, or applied for a credit card), but it would affect our family, immediate and extended, in a similar fashion. The explanation was clear: nobody would believe two Palestinians males over a respected man in the IDF with 40 years of experience. At this point I started to offer up information that may or may have not been considered “terrorist activity,” essentially the plans for our trip, which my brother and I were still faintly excited about, plans that didn’t seem to bring much joy to Sami.
Sami started to go through our phones, writing down numbers and asking questions about anyone with an Arab, Persian or Jewish name. He was particularly angered when he saw the name of a well known Jewish activist who had done extensive work in the occupied territories in my brother’s phone. Ironically, the number in my brother’s phone was the number of a paralegal in New York City, not the well-known activist, but Sami wouldn’t get off the subject for a solid half hour.
After about 90 minutes of intense bullying, Sami concluded we weren’t terrorists. At this point, good old Sami started to warm up, but not without first telling us what we explicitly weren’t supposed to do: no ISM, stay away from AIC activity, and do not engage in anything that we would categorize as non-violent activism.
By the end of stay at Ben Gurion, Sami informed us that we were lucky to catch him on a good day. He became extremely open and candid in the last 30 minutes. He said that he may not agree with everything that he does and he may not agree with the political situation, but he’s a soldier of the state, and serving its interest is his job. While I appreciated his honesty, this type of rationalization has been used throughout history, justifying war crimes and human rights violations ad infinitum.
As our seven hour journey came to an end, Sami began telling us personal stories. I’m not sure if it was an attempt clear his conscience, but he told us about his diverse group of friends, which included Arabs, and how his life had been saved five times, all by Arabs. It was amazing to see how human and forthcoming some of the “toughest” people in Israel have become, while at the same time keeping up their walls of discrimination and oppression, walls that have ultimately been encompassed by a greater wall of rationalization. For us, it was seven hours of hell in Ben Gurion. For a Palestinian here, occupation is a reality every day of the year.